The Professor by Kendall Defoe

Before I begin, I'd like to I thank you for taking a meeting with me during what must be a very busy time of the year. I know the pressures you're under, but I cannot hold back any longer. I have already waited long enough.

Let me be as discrete as possible with this problem: I have to tell you about a professor I had here in my freshman year. Well-respected at this institution, he can still be seen in lecture halls, attending meetings and giving advice to fledgling instructors. So, how do I tell you what he did, what he probably continues to do, without damaging a reputation and a distinguished career? This is difficult;  I know that he still holds a position of responsibility within the faculty; and, in the minds of the students, is some sort of academic god. If anyone were to recognize him through these words it would be damaging to more than just one man. The thought of this is hateful and vile to me; I cannot let this happen. Therefore, it is necessary for me to use several aliases in the statement that I am about to make. Those who do recognize themselves in it must forgive me for my confession. This is something which must be told.

As I've stated, he was, or continues to be, a full professor at this school; he has the demeanour of a man that you could assume belonged to one of our institutions of higher learning, even if you met him only briefly in any other setting. He has the paunch that develops over the years in men when their bodies are separated from the physical activities of daily life and are left as storehouses of intellectual impulses and clever thoughts; the clothes are usually old, well-worn, and always out of season. He is the archetypal figure of an absent-minded professor.

He taught me poetry, covering so many genres, eras and styles that many of my fellow classmates – and I was no exception in this – wondered why he never wrote a book on the subject. We searched and searched through the library files, even going to the privately-owned bookstores around campus to find one article in one obscure journal anywhere that he may have penned, but nothing made itself known to us. We never dared to ask him why this was so. No one asked for any sort of clarification. It was only an imagined obstacle in truly admiring the man. But I should be clear as to why we never broached the subject with him.

I did not mention one thing when I described him, one specific physical trait that would haunt you from the moment you first encountered it. It was his eyes. They are black; actually the darkest brown stones ever set in a face behind thick lenses. You could never encounter such a thing anywhere else. His glare is a legend on this campus, one which had spread to my high school by my final year there. It was not a rumour that was passed on from the seniors in order to scare the freshmen. It was quite real. I had my own personal experience with them, very early in my career here.

I had decided that I was not going to let this man intimidate me. I had to face this “demon,” of sorts; I didn't need to take his course, I could have, like most of my friends, signed up for another, without The Gaze; but I'd decided that I had to face him. I showed up for the first class early, took a seat that was right at the front. And I waited. The room began to fill with people that I barely recognized from other classes, and none of my friends was there. Most of them had probably never met, nor knew this professor, and had been very lucky in this regard, until now. Within a week, many of those sitting at the front with me had either moved back or transferred out of the course. There was a very real sense of fear in that room.

I decided to not move back. I stood my ground, or, at least, I sat. My desk was right before the room’s lectern, and thus began the battle.

I began to call it a battle from the moment he stood at the lectern and opened his notebooks. It seemed he wanted that fear in the air; wanted his students to be nervous, and that the best way to provide them with it was through a constant stream of quizzes and random questions. The occasion I would like to share with you now has been on my mind for a very long time. . .

We had moved on to the Romantic poets, and he was looking for the weakest students.

“Mr. Smith, what did Percy Bysshe Shelley intend by writing a poem such as ‘Ozymandias?’”

I was lucky enough to miss that one; I remember now that he always had a question ready when he entered the room, and this was one of those rare moments when he went to the back of the class. And anyone who would try to answer him, myself included, would always do or say something wrong. And I could feel the kid behind me begin to mumble his way through an answer.

“Well. . .Shelley thought that. . .”

“Shelley?” — let me add here that he was also a stickler for detail in everything; he hated lone surnames.

“Percy Bysshe Shelley.”

“Yes, of course. Do go on.”

“Well, he was saying that nothing really lasts and that leaders can’t always live up to the pressure of having to represent their followers, whether it’s in ancient Egypt, Shelley’s time, or our time.”

Some of the other students murmured approval of what their peer had said; but when that subsided, a pall of silence hung in the air and settled like a fine mistforgive me if I overdramatize the situation, but always he did the same thing when he received an answer: he would stare straight at the student as if he had just declared that he was the reincarnation of the writer under discussion; his glasses were dropped onto a nearby table, the bridge of his nose was rubbed; his fingers would run into his eyes, and so it would begin.

“Mr. Smith here has presented us with his definition of events in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s magnificent poem, ‘Ozymandias’. Yes, he has told this class that Shelley’s only concern was making sure that people in this age remembered the story of an Egyptian ruler who could not, as it were, ‘take the pressure of his job.’”

And this would go on for most of the first thirty minutes; I had to pay close attention. He would appear to become deeply absorbed in what he was saying, but he was also full of starts and stops. He would often need a charge of some sort, and felt that I was the person to provide it.

“Mr. _____, do you agree with Mr. Smith’s interpretation of the poem? Was he simply someone who could not ‘take the pressure of his job’?”

I could feel every eye in the room burning into me; I was looked upon as someone willing to take on The Gaze because I had not moved to the back of the room, nor into a different class. But I was no more confident of myself then now. Yet, I had to say something.

“No, sir, but I can see where he’s going with his line of thought.”

“His ‘line of thought?

“Yes, sir. His line of thought. This is a poem about ambition and the unavailingness of pride. All the consequences are here in this very brief poem; the poet has encapsulated one lifetime in two stanzas.”

My first mistake came in speaking for longer than I had intended; the second was in using the language that he used. The Gaze was facing me and there was real anger in it now. And then he spoke; he spoke down to me, to Mr. Smith, and to every other student in that class. It must have been something prepared, rehearsed in own mind before he came in; it was bold, charismatic even. I will only share the telling lines of that lecture; this I can recall:

“So even when men face their greatest fears and trials, and they fall to their most base desires, they will see that their agonies are eternal. . .that they will have to face them, will endure them.

Poetry is our greatest source of guidance and strength, when our lusts are bold and our fears scourge us.”

That was the last real memory I have of him in a classroom. He read the poems, glared at his audience, and left us with those words in the air. . .

Telling, that the last memory I have of him was a discussion of Shelley, and that particular poem. I’m sure it's familiar to you. Perhaps I can recall. . .yes, that’s it; the actual words inscribed on the pedestal mentioned in the poem:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I cannot help but think of those words now, especially given what I am about to tell you.

I found a part-time job in a video store after my first year, lucky enough to find a store that was right on my route home. One evening, I had just finished my shift and was waiting at the bus stop—this was a waste of time as I had missed the last bus and had a lot on my mind; I had several essays to work on, including one on Shelley, interestingly enough: it was to bne called “Hypocrisy and Negativism in the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley”.

The night was nothing special; a warm night, made humid by lots of rain. I could have waited another hour for the bus; but, alone in a neighbourhood that I knew was not safe—you could often hear sirens; a nearby store had been robbed—I walked right back to the video store, the only place open at the time. In the office, I looked over my paper and finished some rancid coffee that I should have avoided, but which kept me alert.

Very quiet in the store, at that time of the night, when the only customers were porn-junkies; whom, if we did not cater to them, the business would have been insolvent; so, the curtained area next to the counter paid the bills.

I needed something that would make me forget about Shelley for a night. Comedy was right across from Adult, nearest to the exit, and we had a strict rule of how much time a customer was allowed to spend in that area; no more than five minutes. Perhaps that was why it seemed odd to me to hear the curtain beads part. Though I had my back to it, I could see him in the security mirror:

He went out quickly, without a rental, but I had seen those eyes. He hadn't seen me, or at least didn’t acknowledge me as, in my baseball hat and t-shirt, I could have been any customer. Through the window I saw him move around the corner and into a local park.

I could have made a mistake, I know that now. But it was he; it had to be. In coming to see you today, I am taking one of the greatest risks of my life. I have enough on my head without thinking about what I saw.

Let me say again that I am not doing this to ruin anyone, but to make sure that you know the truth about him. I have told no one else what I've shared with you today and I don’t think I have to explain what is at stake here. I worry that someone else, perhaps another student, may catch him in the act.

Thank you for your time. I know that you can infer whom I’m talking about from what I've given you today. And you and your colleagues can make your own decisions about what to do.

Again, thank you for your time.

Writer/Reader/Poet/Dreamer... Kendall is a college instructor, experimenter with the written word, and someone who thinks that books are worth saving. (Also: librarians and snail mail—damn you, Canada Post and certain school boards!) I just hope that someone gets a laugh and enjoys my work...